Despite High Death Rate, Rural Drivers Feel Safer

As Rim braces for weekend crunch, study shows people misjudge risk of rural highways

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Zach Zitting (right) guides Javer Dutson as they fill a trench with gravel for a newly laid drainage pipe during construction of the roundabout at the intersection of Highway 87 and Airport Road.

Ah: Cruising down a scenic highway with the Mogollon Rim on the horizon.

Breeze in your hair — life is good. Right?

Hey. Not so fast: Keep your eyes on the road.

Turns out, drivers feel safe and relaxed on rural highways, but they’re actually more likely to get killed in a crash than when hurtling down stress-inducing urban interchanges, according to a study released this month by researchers from the University of Minnesota.

A survey found that 79 percent of drivers say they feel relaxed and safe on two-lane rural highways compared to 69 percent who say the same thing about multi-lane urban ones.

Yet, rural areas account for 20 percent of the population, but 60 percent of the highway deaths.

The reminder comes just in time for the end-of-summer three-day weekend, when Rim Country highways will be jammed with drivers evidently thinking they’re safer once they clear Phoenix.

The researchers concluded that drivers underestimate the risks of driving on roadways with curves, narrow shoulders and no guardrails and perhaps take extra risks like using their cell phones while driving.

For instance, the survey revealed that 38 percent of drivers say they feel relaxed on rural highways compared to 19 percent on urban highways.

As a result, drivers fail to pay strict attention and even pull out their cell phones and a ThirstBuster, the researchers concluded.

Especially us locals: The survey found that among rural residents, 69 percent said they feel relaxed on rural roads while just 13 percent say they’re relaxed on big city highways.

The misleading danger of rural roads appears to apply with tragic force to Gila County, with an accident fatality rate three times the state average, according to figures compiled by the federal Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Gila County had 42 traffic deaths per 100,000 population in 2008, compared to 14 deaths per 100,000 population statewide.

Gila County had the third highest fatality rate in the state, following two other rural counties — La Paz (100 deaths per 100,000) and Apache County (64 deaths per 100,000).

Gila County fared especially badly when it came to deaths caused by alcohol-impaired drivers, single vehicle crashes, speeding and running off the road.

On the other hand, Gila County’s fatality rate was relatively low when it came to crashes at intersections, the deaths of passengers and accidents involving people on foot or on bikes.

The statewide numbers bore out the study on the risks of driving on rural roads.

Rural roads in Arizona had 2.4 times the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled as the state’s urban roads — 2.59 versus 1.07.

Arizona’s fatality rate remained about 15 percent above the national average in the most recent figures available, despite a 28 percent decline in the fatality rate here since 2004.

The grim numbers bear out the recent study, which combined driver surveys with accident figures.

Now, Rim Country residents watching the weekend highway freak show might shake their heads and mutter something unflattering about all those big city drivers — but it turns out the locals may be more of a hazard than those stressed-out flatlanders.

A daunting 44 percent of rural residents said they felt safe using a cell phone while cruising down rural highways.

Repeated studies have shown that using a cell phone instantly converts you into the highway equivalent of a drunk driver.

Drivers said they also felt more safe eating and drinking on rural highways.

Curiously enough, drivers said they felt more safe speeding on urban highways — which seems to run counter to the high death rate from speeding accidents in rural counties.

Other surveys have noted that only about half of drivers routinely use seat belts in Arizona and just under half of motorcycle riders wear helmets.

About half of the drivers in the most recent study said they just didn’t have as much to worry about on rural highways — which includes traffic, congestion and people.

About 31 percent said they felt safe and relaxed because they knew the area — once more an indication that we locals may pose the biggest risk.

Study author Lee Munnich, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety, concluded “Americans seem to be lulled into a false sense of security on our tranquil rural highways.

“It’s a less chaotic experience, so it apparently feels like a safer experience. That is a myth we have to bust.”

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